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“I’m a headhunter in Asia. Banks are destroying me with underhand tactics”

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I used to be a private banker; now I headhunt private bankers in Hong Kong. I generally face few problems when dealing with candidates – these are savvy, intelligent people responsible for managing the wealth of Asia’s richest individuals and families.

But recently the banks I work for – and in particular their HR departments – have been causing me many headaches.

And I’m not talking about run-of-the-mill issues either – like insufficient feedback after an interview – I’m talking about people involved in the hiring process acting in a sly and sometimes unethical manner.

Let me give you three quite different examples to underscore my point.

An Asian private bank in Hong Kong recently made a job offer to a candidate I’d put forward (and who’d been through the entire interview process with my assistance).

When making the offer, however, the bank told this relationship manager to say that he’d originally applied for the job directly, not via me. This was certainly not the case.

It was a great position which the candidate didn’t want to lose, so she complied and took the role. While some of the blame lies with the RM for undermining her recruiter, it was an incredibly snaky, underhand tactic by the bank – purely designed to avoid paying my fee.

On the back of that experience, I complained to the bank’s CEO about his HR team, and said that my search firm wouldn’t work with them again without a guarantee that they won’t retrospectively claim my candidates as their own.

The problem is that talent acquisition people in HR have a personal financial motivation not to work with headhunters. The higher the percentage of candidates they recruit directly themselves (without using recruiters), the higher their annual bonus.

So now to my second example of private banks behaving badly in Hong Kong. I had a meeting at a European firm the other day and was asked which particular rival bank I would target to find new RMs.

Soon after I mentioned the name of the bank and explained why its bankers would be a good fit, the HR team at the European firm sent LinkedIn messages to virtually all the RMs at the rival. Again, this is a vindictive and sly way of operating.

But HR people should know that word gets around very quickly in Asian private banking – it wasn’t long until I found out what they’d done.

Moving private bankers isn’t easy (onboarding clients is a nightmare these days), so it’s ultimately not in HR’s best interest to undermine headhunters. They need us in this sector more than in most parts of financial serveries.

If all that wasn’t enough, I also recently worked with a US bank in Hong Kong that had a clear need for a new RM and an open vacancy for the role.

My candidate aced the first three interviews and the hiring manager (a senior market head) loved him. But then his boss, the head of the private bank locally, pulled the rug from under us at the last minute.

Not only was the candidate rejected, but the whole vacancy was withdrawn. Obviously the boss knew about the role from the outset and could have culled it at a much earlier stage if he had genuine concerns.

So why leave it late? It was purely down to politics at the bank. The market head and his manager had a history of not getting along. The latter saw it as a chance to bring the former down a peg or two – but it was my candidate and myself who ended up losing.

These three cases are admittedly at the extreme end, but the worrying thing is that they all happened recently. Private banks in Asia are all desperately fishing in the same pool for RMs – I just hope they treat headhunters with respect as they try to hire.

Gerard Yang (we have used a pseudonym to protect his identity) is a former private banker who now works as a headhunter in Hong Kong.


Image credit: RapidEye, Getty

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